Monday, May 29, 2017

How the media discredits successful students

Once again, an undercurrent of bitterness and envy toward high achieving students has surfaced in the media.

Several recent articles with splashy headlines depict high school valedictorians and salutatorians as the "losers" some already assume they are. Face it - many high school students (and their parents) view those students with a combination of awe, astonishment, envy and bitterness. They may question how these students became so successful, and scoff at their sacrifices. Unlike varsity athletes, top scholastic students are often seen as nerdy social misfits who cared way too much about school.

And just in time for high school graduations, several articles affirm the "loserishness" of these high achievers, each with catchy titles that grab our attention. The article, "This is why class valedictorians don't become millionaires" reminds us that these high achievers never snag the American dream. Another article, "Wondering what happened to your class valedictorian? Not much, research shows" reassures the rest of us that all that hard work was never really worth it.

But let's look at these claims. The articles are based on a recent book by Eric Barker, who cited a 1995 study from Karen Arnold, and uses her research to support his contention that valedictorians are not destined for true success. Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians for 14 years after their graduation in 1981. She found that 95% had graduated from college with an average GPA of 3.6, and 60% had received a graduate degree. Almost 90% were in professional careers and 40% were in "the highest tier jobs." These individuals would be considered highly successful by most standards. Yet the media's provocative headlines proclaim otherwise - and raise the bar for success to an unreasonable height.

Before writing off these vals and sals, consider the following:

1. Arnold's study was published 22 years ago, using a relatively small sample from one geographic area. It may not be representative of what occurs in other schools in the U.S. or the world, and may not reflect current standards. High school graduates from the class of 2017 may have very different career aspirations than 1981 grads.

2. Study participants were followed until age 32. This is hardly an age cut-off for greatness. Although some "geniuses" show spark early on, in many careers, success takes time, and accumulating millions by age 32 (a criteria for success in the CNBC article) is unlikely. Let's not judge anyone's lifelong achievements by accomplishments at this relatively young age.

3. A somewhat higher proportion of Arnold's study participants were women. She found that many of the women started to doubt their abilities once they entered college (a common struggle for young women), and also chose more female-dominated careers. And at 32, many were focusing on building a family, diverting them from their work. Arnold noted that these women might further their careers at a later time.

4. These articles suggest that the hard-working student is not going to be the brilliant genius who makes great discoveries, starts new companies or showcases wildly creative innovations. Yet, the Bill Gates' and Steven Spielbergs of the world are rare. Most studies of success highlight the importance of conscientious, along with creativity, leadership, integrity and cooperation - traits you would expect to see among valedictorians and other high achieving individuals. 

5. The highly successful people sporting a history of underachievement cited in these articles may have "rebelled" due to boredom and disillusionment with an educational system that ignores gifted students' needs. It is possible that their rebellion did not stem from reckless creativity, but rather from disgust with classes that seemed pointless. If they had been challenged and could have engaged in academics, their investment in school might have been quite different.

6. Even highly creative, fiercely independent people eventually learn to collaborate and compromise - whether in the lab, the boardroom or on a film set. Conformity is more difficult during the throes of adolescence, and maturity develops at a different pace for everyone. Some teens have an easier time during high school and feel supported by family, friends and school. They may be more willing to cooperate with established norms, and focus on learning and achievement. Yet articles such as those above portray these well-adjusted, successful students as inadequate - hard working rule-followers who lack spark. Their tangible and significant accomplishments as teens and as adults are disparaged.

Let's not fall prey to the media's routinely harsh and inaccurate portrayal of gifted or high achieving students. These are children, after all, and they deserve our support and consideration - not our bitterness and scorn. Some valedictorians may be hard working, perfectionistic achievers who sacrifice their social lives for their goals; others may be high ability students who play by some of the rules, but are not fully challenging themselves. You don't have to be a val or sal to be highly successful, and many underachieving gifted and creative students go on to discover greatness. But especially as graduations approach, let's stop disparaging those hard working students who exhibit the effort and endurance to achieve.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A gifted person's guide to therapy

If you are gifted, what should you look for when searching for a therapist?

And when should you run the other way?

Once you have decided you would benefit from the help and support of a psychotherapist, the next step is finding someone you trust. Since misconceptions about therapy are widespread, gaining an overview of the basics might help. Most of the same guidelines apply whether you are gifted or not, with a few exceptions. Here are some tips:

1. First and foremost: Trust your gut

Your best friend, sister, minister, or yelp reviews rave about a therapist. But you meet the person and your stomach turns. Then that therapist is not the right one for you. Yes, it takes time to build trust, but if there is not a good fit, then go elsewhere.

2. You are part of the process

Don't expect your therapist to tell you what to do. You probably wouldn't like it anyway. Therapy requires your input, ideas and contributions. Therapists are not mind-readers and cannot magically solve your problem. You need to be honest, share your thoughts and feelings, and be willing to address concerns you might have avoided for a long time. On the other hand, therapy is interactive and not just a place to unload your stress; there needs to be room for your therapist to offer ideas and feedback. Therapists also comment on your interactions with them to help you improve your relationships outside of therapy.

3. Therapy is hard work

While therapy can be a tremendous support and even a lifesaver, it is also hard work. You will need to think about what you have discussed between sessions and try out new behaviors. You might even need to do a little digging into long-buried family issues to rid yourself of entrenched patterns that influence you now. You won't always walk out of a session feeling great - sometimes you'll feel sad or angry because of emotions that have been stirred up. But the awareness and understanding you have gained is worth it. So be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

4. Your therapist is not your friend

Don't expect your therapist to share how he might have recovered from addiction, lost weight, or weathered a rough patch in his marriage. Whatever worked for him will not necessarily work for you, and his presumed success might spur envy or comparisons that block your progress. Don't ask your therapist about her vacations, medical problems, or where she bought her new outfit. She cannot become your friend, even if she really likes you a lot. Your therapist's job is to help you understand yourself, change behaviors, and improve relationships. Learning too much about your therapist will interfere with that goal and can be confusing and overwhelming.

5. Therapy requires some flexibility

While most therapists adhere to a particular therapy perspective, it is beneficial for all when a therapist understands and can use a range of techniques and approaches when necessary. Most experienced therapists have a toolbox of ideas for how to treat various concerns, and will tailor what is offered to the individual's needs. They are collaborative, empathetic, and creative, can shift from an exploratory approach to problem-solving with ease, and will incorporate a variety of ideas or refer you to additional resources when these might help. Flexible therapists hold firm when it benefits your long-term success, but will change when it is needed.

6. Therapy takes time

Whether due to the cost, time commitment or emotions that get stirred up, many people want to rush through therapy. Or they place constraints on the process, such as insisting on meeting infrequently. This limits the effectiveness of therapy. You wouldn't take half of the medicine your physician prescribed or study part of a textbook and expect a successful outcome. Yet, many clients assume they can cut corners with therapy. If you have been in therapy for a while and think it's time to scale back, discuss this with your therapist. But if you are starting out and expect to improve, don't place restrictions on regular participation.

7. Google is not the best way to find a therapist

Finding a therapist is not like researching a good restaurant.
You are better off asking a trusted referral source. Check with your family physician, pediatrician, school counselor, school psychologist, or member of the clergy for referrals. Friends can be a resource, too, although what works for your friend may not be best suited to you. You could check with your state psychological or social work organizations, or national lists of therapists who specialize in giftedness, such as HoagiesGifted. Some online sites have information about therapists, but check through these carefully, since they typically only offer information the therapist provides. The most glossy websites don't necessarily reflect quality services, and many therapists don't even have an online presence. Referrals through your insurance company are not the best source either, since they usually provide a list of therapists with little regard to your needs or preferences.

8. Sometimes you get what you pay for

Many people assume their health insurance will come through. Sadly, it may provide little help. Sometimes therapy is (wrongly) viewed as a luxury, and some people feel guilty even paying a meager co-pay for each visit. Many therapists do not necessarily work with managed care contracts either. While some people are limited by their financial situations, others may have the means to pay for therapy but don't feel that it is a necessity. A supportive, transformative, and sometimes life-changing experience is certainly worth the cost, and it may be time to re-evaluate priorities and spending decisions. Not to sound harsh, but that's the reality.

9. Competence, credentials and ethics matter

Competent psychotherapists have received comprehensive training in psychotherapy techniques, psychological assessment, personality theory and ethics, and continue to update their training and skills Many therapists develop areas of specialization and expertise; however, breadth of training and experience is even more essential. Competent therapists also recognize their limitations, adhere to ethical codes of conduct and are clear about the limits of what they can offer in therapy.

Psychotherapists should be licensed in your state. Most are licensed as psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, or professional counselors. Be careful about therapists who list an alphabet soup of certifications after their names, or those who use the title of "dr" without a doctoral degree. When in doubt, check with your state licensing board to ensure that your therapist is licensed and in good standing. Be cautious about therapists who promote their expertise based on personal experiences, or claim a greater understanding of your concerns because or recovery from addictions/eating disorders/trauma/depression or any other problem. Yes, the "wounded healer" moniker is a well-known label and sometimes there is some merit to this. But having endured personal suffering has no correlation with skill or expertise, and the therapist's personal struggles and recovery have no place in your therapy. 

Ethical therapists adhere to a code of ethics, including maintaining confidentiality, boundaries and integrity. Therapists separate their own personal needs from yours in their attempts to help you. Unlike some portrayals in the media and film, therapists should never cross boundaries. This means that they cannot become your friend, have lunch with you, ask personal favors, and should not share a lot about their personal lives. In other words, the therapy is about you - not about them. They might share some information about themselves - but only to enhance the work you are doing in psychotherapy.

10. Try to find a therapist who "gets" giftedness

Most therapists do not have much training in giftedness. Those who specialize in giftedness typically have thorough training as psychotherapists, but also understand the social and emotional effects. If you find a therapist you like and respect who does not know a lot about giftedness, he or she may be willing to learn more through reading and workshops, particularly to offset any misunderstanding related to inaccurate diagnoses. What is most important is your rapport with the therapist and perception that he or she truly understands how your giftedness interacts with and affects who you are.

Some therapists specializing in gifted issues promote themselves because they have been identified as gifted. While they may have personal understanding of gifted issues, this does not mean they are experts in "treating" people, or in understanding your unique concerns. Some gifted people without credentials as psychotherapists or training as personal coaches also identify themselves as "gifted coaches." You might find some of them online. Being gifted does not justify promoting oneself as a credible coach or pseudo-therapist. Since there is no formal credentialing for personal coaching, anyone can claim authority as a coach. Be very careful about seeking advice from these sources.

Go get some therapy!

Psychotherapy is not a luxury, an indulgence or for those who are weak. Unfortunately, these stigmas and stereotypes have prevented people from seeking the support and guidance they need during times of stress. Psychotherapists are far from perfect, but they can help you gather the insight, understanding, motivation and self-compassion to move ahead on your chosen path.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gifted overthinkers: What makes them tick?

Gifted people sure do think a lot.

Logic, reason, introspection. Thinking is one of their greatest strengths and a source of delight as they ponder the complexities of...well... just about anything. They love to problem-solve, find a creative solution, deconstruct an idea, let their imaginations soar, and debate and disagree.

But this remarkable asset and companion can be a torment when it goes awry.

What causes overthinking? (And what can you do about it?)

Take charge at all costs

Overthinking can stem from a need for control. Some overthinkers are the high achievers and perfectionists who stand out in a crowd. They grab the controls on any project, seem to have all the answers, and master every detail. They take pride in their knowledge and barely come up for air as they race to keep up with the latest information and theories.
I have to be on top of this
Others expect me to get it right 
If I spend enough time sorting through all the options, I'll figure it out

In an effort to stay in control, these gifted overthinkers seek fool-proof plans to ensure that problems will not arise...or that their presumed flaws will not be discovered...or that they will perform perfectly. This fuels perfectionism, repeated checking. and obsessing about what might go wrong. If they miscalculate, they berate themselves for both the outcome and their failure to devise a perfect plan. And while perfectionism is not exclusive to gifted individuals alone, overthinking can increase the likelihood that this pattern will develop.

When gifted overthinkers strive to be the best, and base their self-worth on accomplishments and praise from others, they not only abandon their intrinsic love of learning, but set themselves up for a lifetime of disappointment. Learning to accept failure experiences and using these as a springboard for future growth is essential for all of us. When overthinkers become entrenched in perfectionistic expectations and the rigid pursuit of external goals, they often end up with nothing more than anxiety.

Hijacked by shame

Some gifted children, teens and adults just can't leave an idea alone. They obsess, worry and overthink. They rework every potential glitch in their plans. They torture themselves with "what-ifs" and worst-case-scenarios.

Thinking - once a joy and refuge - becomes hijacked by shame.

Yes, shame - defined by Merriam-Webster as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety" - takes hold. Shame is the culprit that fuels overthinking for some gifted people. Of course, genetics, biochemistry (in obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example) and external pressure all play a role. But in many instances, shame-based fears drive these thoughts.
What if they discover I'm not as smart as they thought? 
What if I don't succeed? 
Maybe I don't really belong in this advanced class. 
I don't deserve the award - it came too easily.
What is particularly distressing is that most often, their self-doubt and shame is completely unwarranted. Gifted overthinkers worry that their perceived flaws will be discovered, that they will not perform up to par, and that they are undeserving of their talents or recognition. Shame fuels obsessing and overthinking, which in turn, drives even more shame-based fears. They are deprived of relishing their accomplishments and even the activities they enjoy.

Sometimes shame-based fears develop in response to events unrelated to their giftedness (such as depression, traumatic events, or family problems). But all too often, gifted children become ambivalent and ashamed of their talents from an early age. Shame builds when they are chastised for "showing off"... or shamed for correcting a teacher... or teased about the occasional low test score... or when they realize that other children think they are weird.

Gifted children and teens learn to mask their abilities if they want to fit in, as exposing who they are - gifted, with flaws - seems too much for others to bear. These lessons are the building blocks of shame. Overcoming shame-based overthinking requires support and reassurance from caring adults (including teachers who understand and respect the needs of gifted students), finding a niche of like-minded peers who truly accept them for themselves, and sometimes counseling to address low self-esteem and negative thoughts and feelings.

Too many choices

With a mind that races from one fascinating idea to the next, gifted people can be distracted by their own imagination and creativity. It is easy to ignore the tedious task at hand when one's mind conjures up material that is so much more interesting. In fact, some gifted children are misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) because of their high energy level and difficulty focusing on a task.

Gifted overthinkers may become overwhelmed by the choices they face on a given project. They freeze on tests when presented with too many options. They second-guess their answers. They also obsess over the many ideas they can generate when starting a paper, unable to make a clear choice. Rather than appreciate their ability to create so many ideas, or analyze information from different perspectives, they feel anxious and overwhelmed instead.

Too many choices also can create conflict for gifted people with multiple talents and abilities. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they must choose from an array of possible career paths. Making any selection eliminates other options, and many struggle with the implications of letting go. Attempts to juggle and organize competing interests, and tackling more than one pursuit or career goal may contribute to overthinking and distractibility.
How do I combine my love of art with engineering? 
I just can't focus on math when I keep thinking about the screenplay ideas I want to write? 
How do I get started on this paper when I could choose SO many different ways to approach it?  
OK, if I fit in my homework for an hour after school, then I can go to tennis lessons, eat dinner while I write my newsletter article, send off an application for a summer internship, and then practice clarinet. And I'll try to text my friends and help them with their boyfriend drama at the same time. OK, yeah, I think I can fit this all in...
The busy minds and multiple interests of some gifted overthinkers can create an organizational bottleneck. Their greatest challenge is learning to pace themselves, slow down, and develop mindfulness skills to focus on one task at a time. Regardless of how well they think they can multi-task, keeping a distracted focus takes its toll, and learning to pay closer attention to one interest, task and person at a time is essential.

Taming this particular beast

Overthinking can become a stubbornly entrenched pattern that creates the illusion of safe harbor. It reassures the overthinker who assumes that by acquiring just enough knowledge, and reviewing every possible option, the right solution will appear. What eludes overthinkers is the realization that mistakes happen and they will survive with their self-esteem in tact.

In addition to counseling, techniques such as mindfulness, challenging negative beliefs (i.e., cognitive distortions), and values clarification can help. Overthinkers benefit from challenging shame-based messages (from self or others) and setting priorities for what is intrinsically meaningful and of greatest value.

When overthinking strikes, it may be helpful to ask yourself, or have your children or students ask themselves the following:
What is the worst that could happen?
What is the likelihood that the worst will happen?
Where is the data? If I were a scientist, what facts would support my beliefs?
Will this matter five years from now?
Is this consistent with what is important to me and to my values
How can I focus on what is happening right now in this moment, rather than on the past or what might occur in the future?

When gifted overthinkers unburden themselves from anxiety, shame and uncertainty, thinking can resume its role as a source of joy and creativity. If you or your child are tormented by overthinking, get the help you need. Reclaim thinking for what it once was before negative emotions took hold.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overthinking. To see more blogs, click on the following link: